Fatal Grand Canyon helicopter crash ‘could have been prevented’

The Grand Canyon helicopter crash that killed five British tourists could have been prevented and more lives could be at risk if safety concerns are not addressed, an inquest has heard.

A lawyer representing parents of the group of friends – who died after an Airbus EC130 B4 plummeted into a ball of fire – made the claims at West Sussex Coroner’s Court on Tuesday.

Drawing comparisons with the accident at Leicester City Football Club in October, James Healy-Pratt said helicopters are flying around the UK without crash-resistant fuel tanks and the industry had known about the safety concern for 20 years but not acted.

Rebecca Dobson, 26, her boyfriend Stuart Hill, 29, and his brother Jason Hill, 31, all died in the accident shortly before sunset at the Arizona tourist attraction on February 10.

The trio, all from Worthing, were on holiday celebrating Stuart Hill’s 30th birthday with a trip to Las Vegas alongside friends Jonathan Udall, 31, of Southampton, and 29-year-old Eleanor Milward, who were on their honeymoon.

The newlyweds died from their injuries days apart later that month at the University Medical Centre, Clark, Las Vegas.

Jason Hill’s girlfriend Jennifer Dorricott survived the crash but suffered life-changing injuries and is recovering, the pre-inquest review heard.

Pilot Scott Booth, who was in a critical condition, also survived but both his legs had to be amputated, Mr Healy Pratt said.

Parents of all five who died attended the proceedings in Crawley.

Mr Healy-Pratt, who represents all the families except that of Mr Udall, told the packed room: “This accident was survivable. This accident was preventable.

“Further and future innocent lives are at risk without adequate crash-resistant fuel systems (CRFS).”

Referring to a Wall Street Journal investigation published in August that “shone a light on a problem that has been known within the helicopter industry for over 20 years”, he said: “A helicopter can crash and if the fuel system is not robust enough people will burn to death and that is what has happened over the past 20 years.”

The Hill brothers were so badly burned investigators struggled to identify their remains, US autopsy reports released in May revealed.

Mr Healy-Pratt claimed there was “insufficient regulatory action by authorities in Europe and the US” but manufacturers, operators and owners had also “not done enough” to warn people of the dangers.

He added: “This terrible tragedy earlier this year is just another example of innocent people losing their lives. More needs to be done.

“There’s no rule that forces helicopters to retro-fit safer fuel tanks and that is something the families have very serious concerns with.”

It is expected Mr Booth will be asked to give evidence during the inquiry alongside three members of the Australian Air Force who witnessed the crash, the hearing was told.

Tour operator Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters will also be involved in the proceedings while manufacturer Airbus as well as the Civil Aviation Authority have been asked to take part.

Mr Udall’s parents have already launched a wrongful death lawsuit against the tour operator and manufacturer, claiming their son would have survived if CRFS had been installed.

They are also suing Mr Booth for negligence in a separate lawsuit.

Airbus previously said it was increasing the number of aircraft built with CRFS.

Leicester City v Burnley – Premier League – King Power Stadium
Leicester City v Burnley – Premier League – King Power Stadium

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Mr Healy-Pratt, who is the head of aviation at firm Stewarts Law, said there “may be a link” between the Grand Canyon crash and the accident in Leicester that killed the club’s owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and four others when the helicopter was engulfed by flames after hitting the ground.

He added: “The families are very concerned there are helicopters flying around the UK that are not fitted with crash resistant fuel systems.

“This is a matter of national importance.”

An “exact model” of the helicopter involved in the US crash was recently seen at Redhill Aerodrome, Surrey, he said, suggesting others would probably be found elsewhere around the country.

The fault lied with the “failure” to make the systems – which cost around 75,000 US dollars (£55,557) to fit helicopters worth two million dollars (£1.56 million) – mandatory, he claimed, adding: “What price do you put on human lives?”

A report into the accident is likely to be published by the US National Transportation Safety Board in February and another pre-inquest review will take place in the UK in March.

Coroner Penelope Schofield said the full inquest is likely to take place in the autumn next year shortly before she begins her inquiry into the Shoreham Airshow crash.